The Problem with Israeli Public Schools

Dear Friends,

In recent years, there has been increasing focus in the Israeli media on how the public school system in Israel is suffering from a loss of vision, declining educational standards, and increasing violence among the students. With regard to the increasing violence, the Jerusalem Post reported on Aug. 27th, 2009:

“Amid spiraling violence and behavioral problems in the country's schools, the Education Ministry distributed new directives to all schools on Thursday for fighting violence and boosting discipline, for the new school year.”

The Jerusalem Post also reported on Jul. 29, 2009:

“School security guards, who until now have focused on preventing external threats like terrorism, will begin receiving specialized training on how to deal with pupil violence.”

I first became aware of this problem about ten years ago when the media reported on a study in 1998 on the increasing violence in Israeli public schools.  The report included the following information:


“Over 50% of all 6th to 11th graders reported being involved in some kind of violence, while 60% took part in acts of hooliganism toward other students or were victims of hooliganism. One third of elementary school students reported assaults involving intentional wounds inflicted with knives or sharp instruments.” (Tel Aviv University News, Spring 2000).

Since I came to Israel, I have lived in both Religious Zionist and Chareidi communities that have alternative schools that are guided by the leading rabbis of their communities; moreover, these schools are also influenced by the high quality yeshivos and seminaries for older students within these communities. Within these alternative religious schools, there was no serious problem of violence; thus, I was shocked to read the various reports on the increasing violence in Israeli public schools.

These reports have led to a growing interest in alternative schools which could provide a spiritual Jewish vision combined with a spiritual discipline, in order to develop an inspiring and safe educational atmosphere. An example is found in the following article from the Jerusalem Post which discusses an alternative and innovative school system called “SHUVU” – Return:

What Makes Parents Do it?

by Jonathan Rosenblum

Jerusalem Post, November 27, 2008

Recently I visited the Center for Science and Judaism in Hadera, a school with 540 students, almost all of whom have at least one non-shomer Shabbos parent (one parent that does not keep the Sabbath). Yet the administration and most of the staff of the school are chariedi.

SHUVU, a chareidi-staffed school system, employing 1,500 teachers in 25 cities, was originally created for immigrant children from Russian-speaking homes. Today approximately 1,700 students from veteran Israeli families also learn in SHUVU schools. Thousands more children from secular homes have been registered in recent years in various chareidi frameworks by Lev L'Achim.

Why would a secular parent put his child in a school with intensified Jewish studies taught by chareidi teachers? Why run the risk that their children will end up religious? What is the risk of keeping children in the state school system that is so great that parents are willing to put their children in chareidi frameworks?

Admittedly Israel's state education system is a shambles. Year after year, Israeli students rank near the very bottom of industrialized nations on international math and reading comprehension exams. Both student and teacher satisfaction are commensurate with those achievement levels – i.e., at the bottom of the pack. Over 60% of teachers report being the victims of physical or verbal abuse in the past year.

Those dismal statistics make it easier for parents to consider alternatives to public education. Still I doubt that the parents in Hadera or in SHUVU schools were primarily seeking to improve their children's math or reading comprehension scores, though they would be justified if they had. The Hadera school provides four hours of weekly instruction in a state of the art science lab powered by solar energy. SHUVU schools cover 20-25% more math material per year that the state schools, and they start computer and English instruction earlier.

True, most of the parents would not have registered their children in chareidi-run schools if they felt it was at the expense of a decent (or at least equal) secular education. But the real attraction of chareidi-run education, I believe, lies in the widespread perception that Israeli families and society are not producing the same type of children they once did. Today's young are seen as lacking respect for elders, whether their parents or teachers; being uninterested in anything besides what's on TV or the Internet; and aspiring only to be rich and famous.

A few years back, then
Maariv editor Amnon Dankner explicitly drew the connection between educational failure and societal breakdown. It will be impossible, he wrote, to create an atmosphere of stricter discipline within the educational system, when such discipline is antithetical to everything that Israeli youth, who recognize no authority, experience at home, on the street, or view on television.

In his new autobiography, Moshe "Boogie" Yaalon, describes the idealism of the society in which he grew up. "We had the sense of participation in something great, and to that great project all were obligated. . . . As a result, in the balance between the needs of the larger society and that of the individual, the scales inevitably tilted towards the societal. . . . These matters were understood without being stated. Memories of the Holocaust, the youth movements, the labor movement all combined together to create a strong framework of values." But he writes of a long-gone world.

Fueling the willingness to consider chareidi
frameworks, then, is nostalgia for a lost, values-oriented society. Hadera mayor Yisrael Sadan specifically mentioned his desire for a school where children again stand up for the teachers and teachers are not addressed by their first name.

Accompanying me on my visit to Hadera was Eli Livni, the older brother of [then] Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni and the chairman of the Friends of the school. Though it was the day of the Kadima primaries, and he was being pursued by the media for interviews, he traveled from near Caesaria to talk about the school. For him, the school represented the type of education he had received as a boy, but his children missed. "We had one-tenth of what we have today," he told me, "and we were ten times happier."

A school like that in Hadera, he said, is necessary to restore students' connection to what it means to be a Jew, knowledge of the holidays, how to pray. At the top of the list, he placed teaching respect for parents.

One major attraction of the chareidi-run schools is the lack of violence. Over 80% of SHUVU parents say that the levels of violence are lower in SHUVU. Rabbi Benzion Nordman, the principal in Hadera, explained to me that the students know that respect for teachers is not subject to negotiation. Not even an errant word towards the playground supervisor will be ignored.

Decorum and respect is but one aspect of instilling values, something many parents feel themselves increasingly incapable of doing. The latter have decided that it is better for their children to learn in an environment with a strong sense of values – even if not necessarily the parents' own – than one in which there are no limits, and children grow up thinking life has no purpose beyond the pursuit of money and pleasure.

Israeli parents sense that without instilling a strong feeling of Jewishness in our young, Israel will not ultimately prevail. As Professor Ruth Gavison writes, "The secular Zionist majority in Israel does not receive [an] education which is rich in identity. . . . [And] that endangers Israeli in terms of its chances to survive in the long-term as a state defending the Jewish people's right to self-definition. . . "

Another value supplied by chareidi education is belief in the importance of education itself. Even the sharpest critics of the content of chareidi education concede that chareidi children of all ages learn a much longer day than their secular counterparts and that the content of their learning is intellectually rigorous.

Once PhD.s taught in Israeli high schools. Today teaching is a dead-end, low prestige job. But for chareidim teaching is still the highest prestige profession – a calling as much as a job. Professor Tamar Horowitz of Ben Gurion University states that SHUVU has the greatest degree of teacher accountability of any Israeli school system. It is the only one in which parents can count on being regularly updated on their child's progress.

A story Rabbi Nordman told me captures the sense of mission chareidi teachers bring to their task. A first-grade teacher noticed that one of her students did not hand in his homework three days in a row. She decided to make a home visit, during which she discovered that the boy lacked a table to work at and a bed of his own. Together with the school, she raised the money to purchase both.

More mayors are following the lead of Hadera's Sadan in recognizing the value of chareidi-run schools. Mevasseret Zion mayor, Aryeh Shamam, recently offered SHUVU a complete school facility, after the closure of all the town's religious schools. Yitzchak Ohayon of Petach Tikva calls SHUVU "the best school in the city," and Nazereth Ilit's Menachem Ariav told a group of SHUVU supporters, "Our town needs SHUVU to bring Judaism to us."

Some mayors and the Education Ministry have often fought against the growth of chareidi schooling for secular students, as a threat to the secular schools. But the smart ones have recognized that instead of trying to suppress chareidi education, the state school system should draw the proper conclusions from the success of the former and begin to reform itself accordingly.


.The above information reminds us of the need for more Jewish schools in Israel which can offer students an inspiring spiritual vision in a safe and inspiring atmosphere. May Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, help us to bring light and shalom to all the schools of Israel, and may we soon experience the fulfillment of the following prophecy:

“All your children will be students of Hashem, and abundant will be your children’s peace.” (Isaiah 54:13)



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision